Shooting baskets in the yard of Attica State Prison, Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is called for a visit with the warden (Ned Beatty). Jake is notified that the governor is a huge basketball fan and a booster of his alma mater, “Big State University.” The warden verifies that Jake’s son Jesus (Ray Allen) is now the number one high school basketball prospect in the country. The governor has given his word that if Jake can convince his son to sign a letter of intent with Big State, Jake’s sentence will be reduced.
With a week to go until the signing deadline, Jake returns to Coney Island with an ankle bracelet, a menacing chaperone (Jim Brown) from the board of corrections and a letter of intent for his son to sign. While Jake’s 11-year-old daughter (Zelda Harris) is happy to see her father again, Jesus isn’t interested in reconciliation. He refuses to forgive Jake for the death of his mother. Jesus hasn’t decided which college he wants to sign with yet, but nearly everyone in his life appears to have a vested interest in the boy’s plans.
His girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) is scared of being left behind and urges him to speak with a sports agent who’s paid her off. His uncle (Bill Nunn) is suspicious of where Jesus gets his money and demands his piece of the pie. His coach has kept Jesus in money from an anonymous party, hoping for a hint of which school he’s leaning toward. Coaches John Thompson, Dean Smith, John Chaney, Roy Williams, Nolan Richardson and Lute Olson appear on video to remind Jesus, “This will be the most important decision in your life.”
Only a diminutive teammate (Hill Harper) and a neighborhood ganglord (Roger Guenveur Smith) who guarantees Jesus protection seem not to want something from him. Beyond the accident that took his mother’s life, Jesus resents his father for how hard he pushed him as a child on the practice court. Jake does his best to make up for lost time – revealing he named Jesus after Earl Monroe, not Jesus Christ – but with his time up, issues his son a challenge; a game of one-on-one for his signature on the letter of intent.
Writer-director Spike Lee had always thought his first sports film would be a biography of Jackie Robinson, but after struggling for two years to find the financing necessary to tell Robinson’s story, Lee had to put the project on hold. In 1996, his wife told him that he should write an original screenplay, something in his own voice. Jungle Fever had been his last attempt at this and that had been six years previous. Once Lee started writing again, the first thing that came to his mind was basketball.
Lee wanted to avoid sports cliché, “that hokum Hoosiers, Rocky kind of sports movie. No underdogs, no team from the sticks.” Knowing that every NBA player who spotted him courtside at Madison Square Garden would be on his case if he made a bad movie about basketball, Lee also wanted to avoid the inaccuracies of many recent hoops flicks. “Those films, everybody’s dunking. And you can tell they got trampolines off to the side and guys are flying through the air like it’s a karate movie or something.”
Once he finished the script, Lee Fed Exed it to Denzel Washington, who sent word two days later that he would star in the picture. This got Disney to commit $23 million in financing. Washington made the package even more appealing by cutting his fee in order to get the movie made. Lee had been worrying about who he was going to cast as Jesus. “I don’t think there’s an actor today that could’ve exhibited the skills to look like he could be the best high school athlete.” Lee drew up a list of every NBA player who looked like he could still be a high school senior.
Kobe Bryant had off-season commitments. Tracy McGrady auditioned but was found too reserved. Allen Iverson auditioned as well, but his acting chops didn’t impress anyone. Management for Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury wanted a guarantee that one or the other would be offered the part. Travis Best, Walter McCarty and Rick Fox auditioned and all won supporting parts. Lee approached Ray Allen during halftime of a Bucks-Knicks game and ultimately offered him the role of Jesus. Allen had never acted before, but went to work with an acting coach eight weeks prior to filming.
He Got Game opened in May 1998 on more screens (1,300) than any Spike Lee film to date, and though it debuted number one at the box office, the movie faded fast from public view, grossing $21.5 million in the U.S. As with most of Lee’s work, critics either loved it or hated it. Roger Ebert wrote that it was Lee’s best since Malcolm X, adding “Spike Lee brings the spirit of a poet to his films about everyday reality.” Bruce Diones at The New Yorker wrote, “Spike Lee offers up more cliché-ridden street angst.”
Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show, Lee’s take on He Got Game was this: “I think this film is about parents and children. It’s not just sports dads. It could be stage mothers, I mean, it could be parents pushing their children to be lawyers or doctors or ballerinas or ice skaters. I think all children need to be pushed by their parents, but, at some point, pushing has to stop or it becomes very harmful to the child.”
Some complained that like several of Lee’s films, its portrayal of women seemed unflattering, while the script featured too many subplots, one focusing on Jake’s relationship with a hooker (Milla Jovovich). While neither of those charges is unfounded, they overlook how masterfully He Got Game flows between satire and father-son story, between a scathing indictment of the recruitment of student athletes and the redemptive power Lee finds in the game of basketball. The result is a real labor of love and one of the finest films of Lee’s career.
As a document on the pressures top high school prospects face from colleges, agents, hangers-on and haters, the movie exhausts every angle and takes absolutely no prisoners. Denzel Washington is in Training Day mode playing a man whose anger has undermined his relationship with his son. His climactic hardcourt duel with Ray Allen is a purely awesome piece of filmmaking. Public Enemy provided two terrific songs, and in an inspired choice, Lee utilizes the music of composer Aaron Copland to stirring effect.
Keith Phipps at The Onion A.V. Club writes, “There’s not a relationship in He Got Game that feels right, especially the one between Washington and Allen, and if that doesn’t work, neither does the film. It doesn’t work, in large part because neither is allowed to develop into a character … He Got Game makes a few feints in the direction of religious allegory, but it’s ultimately just a heavy-handed morality tale, complete with cartoonish stereotypes and streetwise, been-there, done-that types who pop up to deliver lectures.”
“Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was excellent. Ever since then, his films have captured some of that excellence in part, but never the quality of the whole. He Got Game is great for looking at a sense of time and place and at the web of relationships that describes the community in the film, reasons enough for setting this film above many others. But gaps in other departments keep this Spike Lee Joint from being another masterpiece,” writes Marty Mapes at Movie Habit.
Rob MacDonald at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “He Got Game is a film of highs and lows, from beautiful on-court scenes to pointlessly gratuitous scenes like the one in which a pair of balloon-chested babes offer sex to Jesus. There are moments of great passion that are followed by scenes that are terribly juvenile or over-sentimental. And the use of Aaron Copland’s ‘inspirational’ music sends some scenes over the edge. Spike would have fared better to stick with Public Enemy.”
The music of Aaron Copland set to the images of one of the best documentarians making feature films, Spike Lee. View the opening credits sequence for He Got Game.